New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Let’s Watch

January 03, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Christine Baniewicz, Culture, Politics

Telling Stories Through the Healing Medium of Theatre

by Christine Baniewicz

“Khaleena enshouf!” Faisal calls. The crowd settles. Let’s watch!

I’m sitting in Jenin refugee camp, surrounded by Palestinians — men, women, children and adults. We are crowded together on blue mats, carried over from The Freedom Theatre down the street. It’s three in the afternoon. I bat a fly from my face and lean forward to watch the enactment.

To my left, a staff member snaps photos. Mustafa lies in the rubble, stretched out across the uneven ground and squinting down the barrel of a video camera. He aims it at the actors, who stand in silence before us.

And suddenly the enactment begins. Faisal steps forward and begins to run, frantic, from one edge of the performance space to the other. Behind him, perched on a pile of crumbled architecture, three musicians rumble their drums ominously.

The crowd bursts into applause when the actors relax. To my left, Kais hides a smile behind his hand. He sits on a wooden stool, the Teller’s chair, at a slight remove from the rest of the audience.

Faisal clasps his hands together. “Kais,” he speaks in Arabic. “Did you see your story?”

Kais nods. “Yes, yes, amazing.” The crowd applauds again.

We have gathered today to listen to the stories of recent arrests in the refugee camp. We are honoring them with theatre. Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach used in over 50 countries as a tool for community building, conflict transformation, education and trauma recovery. In a Playback Theatre performance, audience members share personal stories and watch as a team of actors and musicians transform them into improvised theatre using movement, ritual and spoken word.

“So who has a story?” Faisal conducts the performance. He stands tall and broad-shouldered, speaking to the audience from the stage. “A true story, that happened to you in the last few nights when the soldiers came into the camp.”

When Kais took the stage, moving into the teller’s chair to share his story, I didn’t need translation. I remembered it is from last night.

The army came for him in the night. It was around 2 AM, and when Kais heard them approach he snapped to attention and ran.

Palestinians can face years of interment with no charges when arrested by Israeli officials — not to mention routine beatings and torture — so Kais took to his heels as fast as they could carry him. The army fired after him, but he didn’t look back. He ran through the spray of bullets into the night.

It took him three full-on sprints to escape their pursuit. I remember the sound of his footsteps pounding down the alleyway outside my bedroom window as he tore for the safety of Adnan’s house. I remember the banging of the door. Adnan is the location manager at the Freedom Theatre, and lives one floor below me. Kais shouted, frantic, until Adnan was roused and opened the door to him.

Kais had reason for his flight. His friend and fellow actor, 23-year-old Kamal, didn’t run. He was arrested, cuffed with thin plastic zip ties that burned into his wrists, and blindfolded. Sightless, the soldiers threw Kamal into the back of an army vehicle and beat him mercilessly with the butts of their guns.

“I wanted to cry,” he said, readjusting himself on the stool, his rear still tender from the beating. “But I didn’t. I didn’t make a sound — no shouting, nothing. This made them angry, I think. This was my resistance.”

There were others in the truck with Kamal. He couldn’t see them but he heard their cries as they were struck again and again. He recognized one.

“Mai,” he said. “I could tell it was Mai, by his voice.” Mohammad Saadi, or Mai for short, is one of two technicians here at the Theatre. He’s about my age, thin and shy, always carrying a wrench or a hand drill. He has a wife and a young child. The army plucked him from them in the night.

The truck carried its stolen goods to Jalame, the nearest Israeli checkpoint. “They gave us coffee,” said Kamal — a twisted pleasantry after the beatings.

They questioned Kamal about Juliano Mer-Khamis, the late Artistic Director of the Freedom Theatre. Juliano was murdered in April, and although the army makes excessive arrests and interrogations of the theatre staff, they’ve found no killer. His death remains a convenient reason for arresting them.

“And then they released us.” Kamal and Mai, in that respect, are exceptions to the rule for their short interment.

By the end of the performance, joy was palpable. The magic of watching personal experiences translated into the public language of theatre opened something in the community. They may take our eyes in the night, but we’ve still got our voices today.

Unfortunately, the story is always unfolding. Hours after the performance, Faisal was taken into custody. Eight armed Israeli soldiers entered his home, pulled him out of bed and arrested him at 2:30 AM.

Like Kamal and Mohammad, Faisal was bound and blindfolded. Before they blindfolded him, however, the soldiers marched him down the street to the site of the afternoon’s performance. They stood him there, with no explanation, to silently look over the area.

“This is where they blindfolded me,” he said.

Adnan and Bilal, a board member of The Freedom Theatre, were also arrested that night and released in the morning.

All were driven in the back of army jeeps to Jalame. They left Faisal standing for five hours, his arms bound behind his back, before questioning him. At around 8 AM, an officer finally brought Faisal in for interrogation.

“‘The actor,’ he said, calling me ‘the actor, the actor.’ He told me everything about my life, like we were good friends. He told me about my gunshot wound, from when I was a child. He told me that my friend had given them information. I asked him, ‘what? What information?’ and he said, ‘oh, you know.’ He played on his phone, then, for some moments.”

As a final insult, the officer tells Faisal that he’ll be the most famous actor in prison.

“They target the theatre,” says Adnan over coffee at the morning meeting. Israeli soldiers have arrested him more than once. Aside from dark circles under his eyes, he is unruffled.

“They want people to hate the theatre. That’s why they arrest us.”

“It is very normal, here,” says Faisal. “About once a year, the army comes in and arrests everyone when they get a new general. It’s the general’s way of saying hello.” Hello with torture, I think. Hello with gunpoint alarm clocks and blindfolds and threats.

The UN defines torture as: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person … for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The Israeli government is regularly torturing Palestinians. In the past 48 hours, there have been half a dozen arrests from The Freedom Theatre staff alone. They are almost exclusively conducted during post-midnight raids.

Continuing their commitment to creative resistance, The Freedom Theatre will produce another Playback Theatre performance on January 4thto protest against the ongoing arrests and nightly raids taking place in Jenin Refugee Camp. Midnight Raid: Life Accounts under Military Rule will provide an opportunity for released prisoners and other community members to tell their stories to local and international observers through the healing medium of theatre.

“Khaleena enshouf,” Faisal said, standing between audience and actors last week. This is our charge as we look to Israel and its actions against Palestinians. Let’s roll up our sleeves, remove our blindfolds, and open our eyes. Let’s watch…

Christine Baniewicz is a writer, composer and facilitator of community-engaged theatre. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies and Music Composition from Louisiana State University, and currently coordinates web communications for the traveling theatre-arts organization, ImaginAction. Christine’s original plays and incidental scores have been performed in the US, Northern Ireland and Palestine. She also gives applied theatre workshops to encourage dialogue and creative transformation around social justice issues. Most recently she worked with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine to create forum theatre performances with the acting students there. Visit her blog for written updates, photo and video while she works.  {Photo credits: S.E.T.}

0 Comments to “Let’s Watch”

  1. I wish you all power. I visited the freedom theatre when i was working in palestinian occupied territories in the summer. brave committed people.


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